Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis

Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970. 206 pages.

Jack's Return Home was also published as Get Carter.

Jack Carter is an enforcer for two London mobsters. He returns to his home town to attend the funeral of his brother Frank from whom he was estranged. He also wants to see to his niece Darleen, his only remaining family. The police say Frank was drunk on Scotch when he drove his car into an abandoned quarry but Jack doesn't believe it. Frank didn't drink Scotch and the explanation that he was upset over a relationship ending doesn't wash; drinking was not Frank's way of dealing with emotional issues. Jack's bosses don't want him there because they think he will upset business ties and the local mobsters have good reason not to want Jack stirring things up.

I learned of this book when I posted a question in the FriendFeed Crime and Mystery Fiction room. I wanted to know about early British hardboiled writers. One poster said that "Ted Lewis was the first truly British hardboiled writer, without a doubt." His books are out of print but my library was able to get me a copy. Besides adding to my knowledge of the history of hardboiled crime fiction, it was a very good read.

Jack's Return Home fits into the noir subset of hardboiled crime fiction in the same way as the writings of Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman, etc) are considered noir. Librarian George Tuttle's essay on noir describe noir as
... as a sub-genre of the Hardboiled School. In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics of this sub-genre are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has the lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism commonly associated with hardboiled fiction.

There is nothing to like or redeeming about Jack. He is a gangster, capable of sudden and extreme violence, who uses people for his own ends without any evidence of having a conscience. His main reason for avenging Frank seems to boil down to he's family, it's what you do. Revenge is the natural course of action for a man like Jack. The same with his nice Darleen who might be his daughter. She's sixteen but Jack doesn't have a problem with her making her own way though he will make sure she gets some money.

The town is unnamed but is generally accepted to be Scunthorpe, the site of a large ironworks. Scunthorpe has the iron and sandstone deposits described in the book and is near Doncaster where Jack stops briefly on his way home. I don't know what the real city of Scunthorpe is like, but Lewis' description of a gritty industrial town where the bar life consists of "singing til ten, fighting til eleven" or "waltzing til ten, fighting til one" makes it the perfect urban setting for a hardboiled story.

Lewis' writing style is lean but carries a punch. Here is the first paragraph:
The rain rained.
It hadn't stopped since Euston. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you're doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking and not even fidgeting.

And later, describing the town:
On the surface it was a dead town. the kind place not to be in on a Sunday afternoon. But it had its levels. choose a level, present the right credentials, and the town was just as good as anywhere else. Or as bad.

Here is one of the local mob bosses:
Cyril Kinnear was very, very fat. He was the kind of man that fat men like to stand next to.

The story takes place in 1968 and he uses comparisons that were probably easily recognized when the book was published but which may send a modern reader to Google. For example, several times he describes men by their hair styles:
"Open-necked shirts and Everly Brothers' haircuts."
"His hair style was Irish Tony Curtis."
"His Walker Brothers' hair style flopped over his face..."
Very descriptive once you see a photo of who he is referring to.

One of my favorites is this:
"The girl called Joy brought me my drink. She was strictly Harrison Marks."
Here you need to know that Harrison Marks was a British glamour photographer active when the book came out. In addition to nude photography, he also produced short, 8mm porn movies. Those five words, "She was strictly Harrison Marks", conveys a distinct mental image if you have seen Marks' work. You can get to the official Harrison Marks web site from Wikipedia.

I've read some complaints that the story is too slow and not enough happens. Lewis does spend four pages describing a poker game where Jack is only an observer and the several pages he spends on a porn movie are tame by today's standards. But I didn't feel slowness but a building tension and establishing the dark mood of the characters and setting.

Though fifty years old, the writing and story are excellent and it should be read by anyone who appreciates noir stories where character development is important.

A movie starring Michael Caine as Jack Carter came out under the title Get Carter. It is an excellent noir film and ranked number 16 on the BFI top 100 British films on the 20th Century.